The recent commitment to expand Interstate 15 must have come as welcome news to those who battle what can only be described as the county’s most aggravating commute.
The transit package, which was approved Nov. 16 by the San Diego Association of Governments, commits $516 million to enhance a number of transportation projects countywide. The prime beneficiaries, however, are the commuters who travel the I-15 corridor into inland North County.
By 2007, commuters should have four additional express lanes extending another eight miles from Ted Williams Parkway , where the current lanes end , all the way to Lake Hodges. If SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos’ vision for the freeway is fulfilled, another $200 million will fuel a future retrofitting of the current lanes once the planned expansion to the north is completed.
SANDAG, known more for its ability to engineer studies than put together creative financing deals, has an aggressive plan that banks on $237 million in gas-tax funds and a $129 million advance from fiscal 2008 and another $150 million from a bond sale. As one Solana Beach official noted, it’s a deal that’s hard to pass up.
Though the expansion could be finished as early as 2007, five years is still a long way off. Obviously, I-15 in its current state can no longer support the commuters that use it. Traffic begins backing up as early as 6 a.m. for commuters heading south, who then must turn around that evening for another long commute home.
This expansion is long overdue, and frankly, the commitment to this type of long-term planning should have come a decade ago. It was apparent even in the late 1980s that many middle-class families were being priced out of San Diego and were moving to southern Riverside County.
Though Orange County’s growth paralleled that of its neighbor to the east, residents there largely traveled north to get to work. Though the population along Interstate 5 in coastal North County boomed, commuters were largely residents of Oceanside, Vista, Carlsbad and Encinitas.
It was a different story down the I-15 corridor. Yes, San Marcos grew, as did Escondido and Rancho Bernardo. Carmel Mountain Ranch sprouted over the course of 11 short years.
But today’s 6 a.m. rush-hour dogpiles starting as far north as Highway 78 are the direct result of Riverside County commuters heading to San Diego to get to work. This is not to blame people who want to own an affordable home or a good place to work. Unlike Orange County, the Inland Empire has a relatively undeveloped economic base. It’s apparent workers would rather deal with driving I-15 every day than commuting to Riverside or San Bernardino.
Where San Diego County has failed is having the foresight to see the effect Riverside County residents would have on our own infrastructure.
Perhaps the very real threat of the disbanding of SANDAG in favor of a regional governing board has lit a fire under the agency that can write a fine study but has little ability to implement it. Had someone like Gallegos been running SANDAG, perhaps today we would see more pavement and fewer redundant studies telling us what we already knew: We need more commuter lanes along I-15.